Balboa Pier

It was almost a decade ago that the message board received the following note: you “left out Balboa Pier. That is an excellent halibut fishing pier. My halibut fishing friends and I catch many keepers every year, and we have over 50 years of experience fishing that pier regularly, all year long. Remember to always watch the food supply in the water. If there is baitfish, chances are the halibut have moved in. By the way, we all fish the middle of pier to the surf. That is where the halibut congregate. As to baitfish, don’t forget the sardines as well. Unfortunately the best bait is a live grunion. DFG frowns on that bait.” The note was in response to a post I made regarding the top halibut piers in the southland and it was made by “Snookie” who is the “halibut queen” at the pier. She’s also a wonderfully gracious angler who is at the pier almost every Tuesday along with her fishing buddies. Luckily I’ve become a member of the group, at least whenever I’m in the area.

The pier, though just down the peninsula from the Newport Pier, has a very different feeling. The Newport Pier is primarily an angler’s pier while at Balboa fishing is sometimes simply one small part of the life on the pier. Here, there are usually less anglers and the fishing seems less intense. However, the area is still crowded, just check out the beach, Peninsula Park near front of the pier, and the nearby Balboa Pavilion and all the businesses and activities that surround that area.

Although fishing is at times a secondary preoccupation at the pier, that’s O.K. It gives the fishermen who are present more room to fish—and the fishing can be quite good. The fish mix is influenced by two local factors, the deepwater Newport Canyon that sits just up the peninsula, and the entrance to Newport Bay that sits just down the peninsula. It is especially known for its steady action on pelagics, primarily mackerel, but good numbers of bonito and jack mackerel are also racked up when they’re around. It also sees some unusual fish such as the nearly 6-foot-long big skate taken this past April, a recent sand sole, and more distant catches of green jack, bonefish, and king salmon. When the Humboldt squid make their local appearances they generally include the pier on their itinerary. Snookie and her group keep a record of all species they’ve seen at the pier (caught or seen) and the number is up to 87 different species.

However, for the most part, the fish you will see day to day are the same as seen at most southland piers. The inshore area, along the beach, will produce surfperch, small rays, and an occasional croaker or corbina. Midway out is best for halibut, white croaker, queenfish, sargo, topsmelt and jacksmelt, sardines, sculpin (scorpionfish), shovelnose guitarfish, and a few bass and barracuda (generally late summer to fall). The far end is best for sanddabs (some years), bonito (some years), Pacific mackerel and Spanish jacks (jack mackerel). Most years will also see a few yellowtail swimming through the end area in the fall.

Check out the far end of this 920-foot-long pier when you begin to fish. As mentioned this can be an excellent pier for the pelagics—fish such as bonito, Pacific mackerel, and jack mackerel. Most of the mackerel are landed on Sabiki-type bait rigs or on strips of squid (or pieces of mackerel) fished under a float. Most bonito fall to feathers trailing a Cast-a-Bubble.

The far end is also the best area for the larger sharks and rays and many good-sized shovelnose sharks (guitarfish) and bat rays have been landed at the pier. In addition, this is where you’ll normally encounter the pelagic species of sharks, species like thresher sharks and blue sharks. Snookie has caught threshers and witnessed several LARGE sharks swimming by the pier. Most impressive was a 30-foot-long basking shark that leisurely cruised along the pilings one day, a great white estimated at 20-feet, and a pair of hammerheads, one 8-foot-long, the other estimated at 10-foot-long, that also checked out the Balboa action. All sound pretty interesting.

A few bass will also enter the catch, both sand bass and kelp bass (calico bass), and most of these will be taken from the mid-pier area to the end. Live bait on the bottom is the best bait for the bass but they will also hit on cut anchovies, strips of squid, and occasionally on lures.

Gray smoothhound sharks can be taken from the inshore area to the end while leopard sharks are more common from the mid-pier area to the end. However, neither species is really that common at the pier. What are sometimes too common are thornback rays, a fish that has kept many an angler from being skunked. The inshore waters may also yield some round stingrays and an occasional butterfly ray but both are far less common than the throw-‘em-backs.

For many anglers, especially some of the “regulars,” the mid-pier area is preferable. Disinterested in mackerel, this group is primarily after halibut and this area offers the best chance for the tasty flatfish. The best rigging is a typical halibut rigging or a sliding leader baited with a live smelt, grunion, anchovy (if you can net some), or small queenfish. If you can’t get live bait, use frozen or salted anchovy. Use a whole (small) anchovy, or cut anchovy if the bait is large. Hook the bait through the rear portion of the bait and be prepared to let the halibut mouth the bait a while before striking. Many regulars also like to use swim baits and I’ve been told that the larger size lures, especially the bright green colored ones, can be deadly on winter halibut, the fish that are often the largest of the year. The same area and the same baits (especially small queenfish) can yield white seabass but few that are caught are legal size.

This mid-pier area is also usually the best area for the smaller croakers, sculpin and perch. For medium-sized tom cod (white croaker) and the larger herring (queenfish), use a high/low leader with size 4 hooks, and small strips of anchovy as bait. The same rigging can be used for sculpin (California scorpionfish), but squid is better bait for these good eating fish. Records, by the way, show that the best time to catch the sculpin is at night, and that the winter through spring months offer the best fishery for these fish. Balboa is one of the best piers to catch these scorpionfish.

Use small snag lines (self-made) or the Sabiki/Lucky Lura-type bait rigs for the smaller queenfish, walleye surfperch, pompano (Pacific butterfish), topsmelt and jacksmelt. Schools of the larger jacksmelt typically show up October through February and when they do many anglers will specifically fish for the hard fightin’ “horse smelt.”

Inshore, try for croakers and perch. I’ve caught quite a few yellowfin croakers and corbina here on fresh mussels and bloodworms, and seen some nice barred surfperch caught by anglers using similar bait or live sand crabs. I’ve also been told that quite a few good-sized spotfin croakers are captured, not surprising considering the fact that the nearby Newport Bay is one of the best areas in California for the large croakers. Sargo are another fish commonly caught inshore to mid-pier and some are quite big.

Another fish you may see cruising the shallows is mullet and when the schools of 2-3-foot-long fish show up anglers will toss a variety of baits and lures at them, generally with little luck. They’re not impossible to catch on a line and hook, but about as close as you will probably come. They’re vegetarians, primarily subsisting on algae and tiny bits of food they strain from the mud and sand, and about the only thing that will occasionally attract them are dough balls on tiny, size 12 or 10, hooks. More common is to see people snagging them with large treble hooks, a feat that is legal but not exactly sporting.

As mentioned, Balboa will also see runs of squid every so often. Snookie sent in the following report in September of 2002, “the yellowfin croakers are the big things right now. Today there were lots of them in the surf area. Most of them were caught on squid. The squid bait was from the squid catches of the past few weeks. The Humboldt squid have been making nightly appearances for several weeks now, but are almost gone. It was a show in itself to watch as the pier was lined with elbow-to-elbow fishermen waiting for that magic hour when the squid would appear. They ran all the way to the surf following the grunion and other baits farther out. Those were happy people while the squid were there.”

It’s a good sized pier with (usually) plenty of room for everyone, it’s a good pier for fish catchin’, there’s a good restaurant—Rubys—out at the end, and it has a nice group of anglers on the pier. What more do you need?

Balboa Pier Facts

Hours: Open from 5 A.M. till midnight.

Facilities: Restrooms are located near the entrance to the pier. There are lights, some benches, and fish-cleaning stations on the pier. Ruby’s restaurant sits out at the end of the pier. There is currently no bait and tackle facilities. There is a parking lot adjacent to the pier even though the cost is $1.50 an hour (with a maximum of $7).

Handicapped Facilities: Handicapped restrooms. The pier surface is concrete with a rail height of 36 inches. Posted for handicapped.

Location: 33.59925013477555 N. Latitude, 117.90061712265014 W. Longitude

How To Get There: From the Pacific Coast Highway take Newport Blvd. which will turn into Balboa Blvd., follow it west to Palm Street. Turn right and follow it to the pier and an adjacent parking lot.

Management: City of Newport Beach

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